DIRECT TO CONSUMER: WHY BRANDS NEED TO PUT THEIR PRODUCTS ON PEDESTALS, NOT SHELVES

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Quick. Think of a brand of vacuum cleaner. If you thought “Dyson”, you’re not alone.

But it’s a different story over on Amazon UK’s Upright Vacuums landing page. You’d expect Dyson to dominate but, in its default “sort by popularity” view, you have to scroll way, way down - past dust-suckers from Gtech, Morphy Richards, Zanussi and Bissell - before you get to a single product from Sir James & Co. Now, there are probably very good reasons why that works for Amazon (who control the algorithm governing that page-view), but it’s obviously less than ideal for a brand who famously obsess over its R&D, production and marketing only to finds its positioning diluted by the promotion of their competitors.

So, what do you do when retail’s no longer your best friend? Well, there’s really only one option: you start selling direct. Ecommerce has rewritten the playbook for Direct to Consumer (or ‘D2C’). Where once it meant clunky mail-order, 28-day delivery windows and fulfilment courtesy of a man with a van, it now means state-of-the-art payment processing, next day shipping and as many whizz-bang plug-ins as your server can handle. More importantly, D2C lets brands develop their relationship with their customers at the most pivotal point: the bit where they stop looking up and start coughing up. That’s huge.

So why is most D2C so painfully uninspiring? Let’s go back to Dyson for a second. You’d expect  the most innovative company in the UK to do something really different and exciting with the ‘Shop’ section of their website, but no. You browse to a category, you choose a product, you add it to a basket and you checkout. That’s exactly the same, innovation-free experience you’d have at Currys, or Amazon, or John Lewis. The only real difference? You’re likely to pay about 25% less if you shop around than if you buy direct.

Which is crazy. Brands should be putting their products on a pedestal, not on a shelf like every other retailer does. To do that they need to stop competing like-for-like with retailers (especially when they lack the skills, the capacity and the online footfall to do so) and start selling in an altogether different way.  Happily, as the source of the products they sell, brands are in a unique position to do just that. Take Nespresso, who offer dozens of exclusive items in their  D2C webstore - flavours, gadgets and accessories you simply can’t buy elsewhere. Better still, they have a roster of exclusive services a general retailer couldn’t possibly emulate, from super-granular delivery windows to a free recycling pickup service, and even gratis loaner machines in the unlikely event that your coffee-maker should need to go under the knife.

It’s a formidable effort, and an entirely sensible strategy. In the Center For Ecommerce Excellence’s recent  DTC Consumer Expectations Survey, three in five shoppers said they anticipated better delivery, better credit card security and a better overall experience when purchasing via retailers’ websites than direct (so, again, it’s crazy to play retailers at their own game). But people  did back the brands when it came to extras and exclusives, with almost 75% saying they’d shop D2C if they were able to buy unique products. Nespresso have obviously been listening.

And yet, they (and other brands wanting to thrive in D2C) could go much further. In the past, brands never had a direct relationship with the customer - which is one of the reasons retailers could hold them to ransom. But that’s all changed thanks to social media. Suddenly, brands have thousands - sometimes millions - of fans just waiting to become direct customers, and now’s the time to put that power to use. But, if you want to sell to a social audience, you need to sell in a social way - a way that treats them as people, not as walking wallets; a way that encourages and incentivises them to share with their friends, so that today’s fans and followers become tomorrow’s evangelists and marketers.

Which brings us back to Dyson. Imagine if, rather than pointlessly aping retailers and pushing deals out to customers, they crowd-sourced offers, asking their fans what deals, promotions or exclusives they’d like to see, then making the most popular ones happen.

Amazon don’t do that.

Imagine if, instead of selling their products at one static price, they flexed their pricing to reflect and stimulate buzz: get 1,000 people to buy the new Dyson Cool fan and everyone gets a better price or a product upgrade.

Selfridges don’t do that.

Imagine if their best customers - the ones who really celebrate the brand and inspire their friends to get on board - could earn money-can’t-buy extras such as lunch with Sir James or exclusive access to prototype products.

Littlewoods don’t do that.

Forgive me for being direct, but isn’t it about time that brands either did, or simply got out of the retail business altogether?